Notes from a Dead House (Vintage Classics)

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9780307949875: Notes from a Dead House (Vintage Classics)

In 1849, Dostoevsky was sentenced to four years at hard labor in a Siberian prison camp for participating in a socialist discussion group. The novel he wrote after his release, based on notes he smuggled out, not only brought him fame, but also founded the tradition of Russian prison writing. Notes from a Dead House (sometimes translated as The House of the Dead) depicts brutal punishments, feuds, betrayals, and the psychological effects of confinement, but it also reveals the moments of comedy and acts of kindness that Dostoevsky witnessed among his fellow prisoners. 
       To get past government censors, Dostoevsky made his narrator a common-law criminal rather than a political prisoner, but the perspective is unmistakably his own. His incarceration was a transformative experience that nourished all his later works, particularly Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky’s narrator discovers that even among the most debased criminals there are strong and beautiful souls. His story is, finally, a profound meditation on freedom: “The prisoner himself knows that he is a prisoner; but no brands, no fetters will make him forget that he is a human being.” 

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About the Author:

Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoevsky (1821–1881) is best known for the series of novels he wrote in the last twenty years of his life—Notes from Underground, Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Demons, The Adolescent, and The Brothers Karamazov—which made him one of the major figures of Western literature. These works were all nourished by and partly foreshadowed in Notes from a Dead House (1862), the author’s semifictional account of his own experiences as a political prisoner in Siberia from 1850 to 1854.

Together, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have translated works by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gogol, Bulgakov, and Pasternak. They were twice awarded the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Prize (for their versions of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina), and their translation of Dostoevsky’s Demons was one of three nominees for the same prize. They are married and live in France.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

i

 

The Dead House

 

Our prison stood at the edge of the fortress, right by the fortress rampart. You could look at God’s world through the chinks in the fence: wouldn’t you see at least something? But all you could see was a strip of sky and a high earthen rampart overgrown with weeds, and on the wall sentries pacing up and down day and night, and right then you would think that years would go by, and you would come in the same way to look through the chinks in the fence and see the same rampart, the same sentries, and the same little strip of sky, not the sky over the prison, but a different, far-off, free sky. Picture to yourself a large yard, some two hundred paces long and a hundred and fifty wide, surrounded on all sides, in the form of an irregular hexagon, by a high stockade, that is, a fence of high posts (palings) dug deeply into the ground, their ribs pressed firmly against each other, fastened together by crosswise planks, and sharpened at the tips: this was the outer wall of the prison. On one side of the wall sturdy gates had been set in, always locked, always guarded day and night by sentries; they were opened on demand to let people out to work. Beyond those gates was the bright, free world; people lived like everybody else. But on this side of the wall, you pictured that world as some sort of impossible fairy tale. Here you were in a special world, unlike anything else; it had its own special laws, its own clothing, its own morals and customs, an alive dead house, a life like nowhere else, and special people. It is this special corner that I am setting out to describe.

 

Once inside the wall, you see several buildings. On both sides of the wide inner yard stretch two long, one-story log houses. These are the barracks. Here the prisoners live, sorted by categories. Then, deeper into the enclosure, there is another similar house: this is the kitchen, divided into two sections; further on there is another building where there are cellars, barns, and sheds, all under the same roof. The middle of the yard is empty and forms a rather large, level space. Here the prisoners line up for head count and roll call morning, noon, and evening, and occasionally several more times a day—depending on the suspiciousness of the sentries and their ability to count quickly. Round about, between the buildings and the fence, there is still quite a lot of space. There, behind the buildings, some inmates of a more unsociable and gloomy character like to walk in their off-hours, shielded from all eyes, and think their own thoughts. Meeting them during these strolls, I liked to peer into their sullen, branded faces, trying to guess what they were thinking about. There was one prisoner whose favorite occupation during his free time was counting the posts. There were about fifteen hundred of them, and he had them all counted up and marked off; each post signified a day for him; each day he counted off one post and in that way, by the number of posts left uncounted, he could actually see how many days of prison he had left before his term was served. He was sincerely glad when he finished some one side of the hexagon. He still had many years to wait; but in prison there was time enough to learn patience. I once saw a prisoner taking leave of his comrades before being released after twenty years in prison. There were people who remembered him entering the prison for the first time, young, carefree, mindful neither of his crime nor of his punishment. He was leaving a gray-haired old man with a sad and gloomy face. He went silently around our six barracks. On entering each barrack, he recited a prayer before the icons, then made a low bow to his comrades, asking them not to remember evil against him.1 I also remember how one prisoner, formerly a well-to-do Siberian peasant, was called to the gates once towards evening. Six months earlier he had received news that his former wife had remarried, and he had been deeply saddened. Now she herself came to the prison, sent for him, and gave him alms. They talked for about two minutes, wept a little, and said good-bye forever. I saw his face when he came back to the barrack . . . Yes, you could learn patience in that place.

 

When darkness fell, we were all brought to the barracks, where we were locked in for the night. I always found it hard to go back to our barrack from outside. It was a long, low, and stuffy room, dimly lit by tallow candles, with a heavy, stifling smell. I don’t understand now how I survived for ten years in it. Three planks on the bunk: that was all my space. Some thirty men shared the same bunk in our room alone. In winter they locked up early; it was a good four hours before everybody fell asleep. Meanwhile—noise, din, guffawing, swearing, the clank of chains, fumes and soot, shaven heads, branded faces, ragged clothes, everything abused, besmeared . . . yes, man survives it all! Man is a creature who gets used to everything, and that, I think, is the best definition of him.

 

Altogether there were about two hundred and fifty of us in the prison—a nearly constant figure. Some came, others finished their terms and left, still others died. And they were all kinds! I think each province, each region of Russia had its representatives here. There were non-Russians, there were even exiles from the Caucasian mountaineers. All this was sorted out according to the severity of the crime and, consequently, to the number of years they were condemned to serve. It must be supposed that there was no crime that did not have its representative here. The main core of all the prison populace consisted of deported convicts of the civilian category (departed convicts, as they naïvely mispronounced it). These were criminals totally deprived of all civil rights, cut-off slices of society, their faces branded in eternal witness to their outcast state. They were sent to hard labor for terms of eight to twelve years and then distributed around various Siberian districts as settlers. There were also criminals of the military category, who were not deprived of civil rights, as is generally the case in penal companies of the Russian army. They were sent for short terms, at the end of which they went back where they came from to serve as soldiers in Siberian battalions of the line. Many of them returned to prison almost at once for repeated serious offenses, not for a short term now, but for twenty years. This category was called “perpetual.” But the “perpetuals” were still not totally deprived of civil rights. Finally, there was yet another special category of the most terrible criminals, a rather numerous one, mainly from the military. It was called the “special section.” Criminals were sent to it from all over Russia. They themselves considered that they were lifers and did not know their term at hard labor. According to the law, their tasks were to be doubled and tripled. They were kept in prison until the heaviest hard-labor sites were opened in Siberia. “You’re in for a term, but we’re in for the long haul,” they used to say to other inmates. Later I heard that this category had been abolished. Besides that, the civilian order has also been abolished in our fortress, and a single military-prisoner company has been set up. Naturally, along with that the superiors have also been changed. In other words, I am describing old times, things long past and gone . . . 

 

This was long ago now; I see it all as if in a dream. I remember how I entered the prison. It was on an evening in the month of December. Darkness was already falling; people were coming back from work; they were preparing for the roll call. A mustached sergeant finally opened the door for me to this strange house, in which I was to spend so many years, to endure so many sensations, of which, if I had not experienced them in reality, I could never have had even the vaguest notion. For example, could I ever have imagined how terrible and tormenting it would be that, in all the ten years of my term, not once, not for a single minute, would I be alone? . . . At work always under guard, at home with my two hundred comrades, and never once, never once alone! . . . However, that was not all I had to get used to!

 

Here there were chance murderers and professional murderers, robbers and gang leaders. There were petty thieves, and tramps who lived by holdups or by breaking and entering. There were those about whom it was hard to decide what could have brought them there. And yet each of them had his own story, hazy and oppressive, like the fumes in your head after last night’s drunkenness. Generally, they spoke little of the past, did not like to tell and clearly tried not to think about what had been. I even knew murderers among them so cheerful, so never-thoughtful, that you could wager their conscience had never reproached them at all. But there were also the gloomy ones, who were almost always silent. Generally, it was rare that anyone told about his life, and curiosity was not in fashion, was somehow not the custom, was not acceptable. Though on rare occasions someone would start talking out of idleness, and another man would listen coolly and gloomily. No one could surprise anyone here. “We’re literate folk!” they often said, with some strange self-satisfaction. I remember how a drunken robber (you could occasionally get drunk in prison) once began telling about how he killed a five-year-old boy, how he lured him first with a toy, took him to some empty shed, and there put a knife in him. The whole barrack, which until then had laughed at his jokes, cried out like one man, and the robber was forced to shut up; they did not cry out in indignation, but just so, because he shouldn’t have talked about that; because it was not acceptable to talk about that. I will note by the way that these people were indeed literate and that not in a figurative but in the literal sense. Certainly more than half of them could read and write. In what other place where Russian folk gather in large numbers could you find a group of two hundred and fifty people more than half of whom were literate? As I heard later, someone concluded from similar data that literacy ruins the people. That is a mistake: the causes here are quite different, though it is impossible not to agree that literacy develops self-assurance in people. But that is by no means a shortcoming. The categories were distinguished by their clothing: some had jackets half dark brown and half gray, and their trousers as well—one leg gray, the other dark brown. At work once, a girl who sold rolls came up to the prisoners, studied me for a long time, and then suddenly burst out laughing. “Pah, what a sight!” she cried. “Not enough gray cloth, and not enough black!” There were some whose jackets were all of gray cloth, and only the sleeves were dark brown. Our heads were also shaved differently: some had half the head shaved lengthwise, and others crosswise.

 

At first glance you could notice a rather strong similarity in this strange family; even the most distinct, most original personalities, who reigned over the others involuntarily, tried to fall into the general tone of the whole prison. In general I must say that all these people, with the exception of a few inexhaustibly cheerful ones, who were held up to universal scorn because of it, were gloomy, envious, terribly vain, boastful, touchy, and formalists in the highest degree. The ability to be surprised at nothing was considered the greatest virtue. They were all mad about keeping up appearances. But not infrequently the most arrogant look changed with lightning speed to the most pusillanimous. There were several truly strong men; they were simple and unaffected. But, strangely enough, among these truly strong men there were a few who were vain to the utmost degree, almost to the point of sickness. In general, vanity and appearances took the foreground. The majority were depraved and terribly degenerate. There was ceaseless gossip and scandal-mongering: it was hell, pitch-darkness. Yet no one dared to rebel against the internal statutes and accepted customs of the prison; everyone submitted. There were outstanding characters who submitted with difficulty, with effort, but submitted all the same. Such men came to the prison as had gone all too far, who had leaped beyond all measure in freedom, so that in the end they committed their crimes as if not of themselves, as if not knowing why, as if in delirium, in a daze; often out of a vanity chafed in the highest degree. But with us they were reined in at once, though some of them had been the terror of whole villages and towns before coming to prison. As he looked around, the newcomer would soon realize that he had landed in another place, that here there was nobody to surprise, and he would humble himself imperceptibly and fall in with the general tone. Outwardly, this general tone consisted of a sort of special personal dignity that pervaded almost every inhabitant of the prison. As if the title of convict, of condemned man, constituted some sort of rank, and an honorable one at that. No signs of shame and repentance! However, there was also a sort of outward, so to speak, official humility, a sort of calm philosophizing: “We’re lost folk,” they would say. “You didn’t know how to live in freedom, now stroll down the green street and inspect the ranks.”2 “You didn’t listen to your father and mother, now you can listen to the drumhead’s leather.” “You thought gold embroidery was no fun, now crush stones till your time is done.” This was all oft repeated, both by way of admonition and as ordinary proverbs and sayings, but never seriously. It was all just words. Hardly a one of them acknowledged his lawlessness to himself. Let someone who was not from among the convicts try reproaching a prisoner for his crime and abusing him (though it’s not in the Russian spirit to reproach a criminal)—there would be no end of cursing. And what masters at cursing they all were! Theirs was a refined, artistic cursing. They raised cursing to the level of a science; they tried to bring it off not so much by an insulting word as by an insulting meaning, spirit, idea—that was more subtle, more venomous. Incessant quarrels had developed this science still more among them. All these people worked under the lash, consequently they were idle, consequently they were depraved: if they were not depraved before, they became so at hard labor. They had not gathered here by their own will; they were all strangers to each other.

 

“The devil wore out three pair of boot soles before he got us heaped together!” they said of themselves; and therefore gossip, intrigue, old wives’ slander, envy, squabbles, and spite were always in the foreground of this hellish life. No old wife could be so much an old wife as some of these murderers. I repeat, there were strong men among them, characters who all their lives were accustomed to crushing and domineering, hardened, fearless. These men were somehow involuntarily respected; they, for their part, though often very jealous of their reputation, generally tried not to be a burden to anyone, did not get into empty quarrels, behaved with extraordinary dignity, were reasonable and al...

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